By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Though Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer could not have foreseen it, making a film about a depressed person who spends all of his time in his apartment is pretty on-the-nose these days. The Co-writers/co-directors may not have been seeing the future when their feature film DEAD DICKS premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival in 2019, which is when this interview was conducted. However, the film’s themes of mental illness and mortal speculation go beyond being a product of “the before times,” as we like to call them. The film is personal. It is about love and family, and it just so happens to have an incredibly high body count and hang a lot of dong too.
I have to ask about the title. Where did DEAD DICKS come from?
CB: We had the basic concept of this guy dying and coming back. Then we thought, if we name him Richard, then we can call the movie DEAD DICKS.
LPS: And we also knew that he would be born naked.
CB: Of course we decided to name him that, and we wanted a lot of male nudity in it, so the title would then emphasize those elements.
LPS: Start with the pun, and then go from there.
It has a lot of levels.
CB: Our producer Albert [Melamed] said, “I don’t know how people will take it if we try to sell it. How will distributors feel about having ‘dicks’ in the title?” We can worry about that later. For now, it is to make people interested in seeing it.
LSP: I feel like that with the full-frontal male nudity the title is the least of our worries.
How did the idea of the man coming back from the dead evolve? It’s a unique take on the concept.
CB: The basic core of the idea has been in my head for about three or four years. We had been working on several other projects, written screenplays for other films, and when this other thing fell through we started talking about things we could do that would be self contained. What about that idea of the apartment? The original concept, there was nothing there, there was no meat on the bones.
LSP: It was originally a guy and his roommate.
CB: It was a guy and his best friend. We were talking about it, and there is nothing there that interests us more about the idea than what was on the surface. We had to try and find something that pulls us into wanting to tell the story more. It literally happened last September , we were driving back from some bad meetings we had at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival], that made us decide we have to make our own movie. We have to do it now. We have to try and work as hard as we can to make it ready for Fantasia. Within six months we could have written, produced, and screened our movie. On the drive back, we were trying to figure out what it was about the story that might really grab us, and that’s when we came up with the concept of it being about the brother and sister. The mental health just enhanced it.
LPS: It’s a very zany idea. Probably our zaniest of anything we’ve written. But it is the most personal, strangely. We both have close relationships that are with people we love very dearly who struggle with mental illness. Once we thought of it as a loving relationship. How does that change the dynamic?
There have always been siblings-based horror movies It is such good shorthand for exploring a relationship with someone you love but don’t necessarily like.
CB: And that codependency. It really is at the core of what our movie is about. On each side of it, being codependent doesn’t allow you to move forward. Or to escape whatever it is that is haunting you, in a way.
LPS: A friend of mine said what she liked about the script is how when you grow up with someone, you are only really close with them because you live in a house together. When you get back together for holidays, your only touchstone is, “Remember when this happened?” But your memories of those events are completely different. I think that was subconscious, but we wrote that into the movie. I think once we figured out who it was happening to and we made that personal, it really flowed.
CB: We wrote the first draft really quickly, though it took us a long time to get to that second draft, which is pretty much what the film is. We have this great script doctor that we always send our stuff to and he gives us pages of notes. It helped us understand what we were trying to say and how we were saying it. It took us all though the Holidays, December to January, to really bang out that second draft. It was a struggle because we had all of these things inside of us that we wanted to say, but we needed to figure out how it would fit in the film in a logical way. A way that didn’t feel forced and actually elevated the story. As opposed to just putting in a conversation for convenience.
LPS: One of the best things that happened for the script was that we had some acting students read it aloud at a local acting studio. They were really good! I remember at one point circling one point in the first act, this conflict that the siblings were having, and writing, “This feels unearned.” And later, the actors said that they had a really hard time saying this line, and it was the exact line I circled. We ended up moving it to the third act, to the final confrontation. I was so glad that it happened because I don’t know that we would have noticed it.
The film has the issues with mental illness in the very first shot, but then also goes on to be pretty funny. How did you strike that balance?
LPS: It is something that was really important to us. To not be totally insensitive while also trying to be funny. I’ve also struggled with some mental health issues. To me, I don’t know another way to cope except by making fun of it. I feel that it is the most powerful that I can feel in a powerless moment. If I find a way to make it funny. I wasn’t intentionally going there, but I think that’s how we process things.
CB: A lot of the other stuff we’ve written has been more straightforward horror films. But when I started out writing I always wanted to emulate Troma movies. But I was very young, and I didn’t have a lot of life experience. I thought that was the greatest thing ever. If there was gore, nudity, and violence, it was going to be a blast.
You have all that in this.
CB: That’s why this movie is very different than everything else we’ve done and tried to do, which were straight forward horror films. But this got so personal, our personalities meshed with the characters and the situations. We often fall back on humor in these situations because they are uncomfortable. Living is uncomfortable. Maybe if we can make each other laugh a bit, it can make it a little easier. When we pitched it to people, we always pitched the beginning, which is the suicide. But then when we say what happens next, people always say, “What?!” And then, by the end of it, when we tell them it is called DEAD DICKS, everybody laughs. You can see how we have just taken them on a journey that had made them feel sadness, then uncertainty, and then they laugh. There is something in this idea and this is the way it has to work. It can’t be just serious. If it starts with that, where is it going to go? Starting there and going somewhere absurd allowed us to tell the story in a way that people are open to it. People won’t think we are being insensitive because there is a lot of heart in this film and it is our heart. Our experiences, and what we feel, and the people that we love are all over this movie.
JSP: We didn’t want to be glib, which is hard.
CB: It is very hard. Once we finished the script and had people reading it we asked lots of questions about each moment and how it made people feel. Once we cast the film we asked the actors how they felt certain reactions worked. Did it feel honest? Did it feel sincere? With a lot of their feedback we were able to get the script finished. We did a lot of ad libs on set that helped elevate some of these moments. It made it a lot more real. It’s very hard when you want to talk about a very sensitive matter. When A Star Is Born came out we read some things about reactions to the suicide scene. Some people found it triggering, and we got concerned because our movie starts with it.
LPS: We have an almost trigger warning at the beginning of the film. It has who to contact and when if you need help. I don’t know if it will do anything, but I felt like it was a necessary extra step.
“Living is uncomfortable. Maybe, if we can make each other laugh a bit, it can make it a little easier.”
Speaking of casting, Heston Horwin is amazing and carries so much of the film. How did you find him?
CB: It was written for him, but we thought we’d never be able to get him. Heston is at the beginning of his career. I saw him in Rock Steady Row at the Chattanooga Film Festival. I actually hung out with him before I saw the movie, but then he was great in it. He did physical comedy. He also did his own stunts. This guy really committed. The character in that movie was just naturally coming out of him. And then we spent two days together and he was so nice and so receptive. When I came back to Montreal we were writing another movie. We sent him that script, and started communicating for months about the character in that film. That was the film we were trying to raise money for and things fell apart. Then we decided to do DEAD DICKS. When we wrote DEAD DICKS, we wrote it with him in mind as that character. He doesn’t usually do things that are serious, but after it was written we sent it to him. He said he would love to do this, and he’d been talking to his acting coach about how to approach it. Once he said yes and we were able to negotiate the whole thing with his manager, and the Canadian government to get him over the border, and the actor’s union, we spent a lot of time on Skype chatting about who we saw the character to be. He also gave us tons of great insight to where he thought the character would be coming from. When he came to Montreal he was staying with us. All we did was talk about movies, talk about his character, watch things, discuss our personal life. We all helped shape this character together, On set, he just went with it. We didn’t have to do too much with him because we had all prepared so much. He had so many great ideas on set too.
LPS: I didn’t know about this acting technique, but he works with the Alexander technique. With his coach, the way that he often finds a path into a character is through an animal. With Rock Steady Row he thought of a stray dog. I had that in my head as we watched that movie. At one point I saw the dog, just in his physicality. The character of Richie swings up and down, so we were thinking what could be the two sides. I thought of a spider, because of its two sides. It is a common phobia, but also a spider lives in its own art. I always thought of his place as cocoon-like. He doesn’t really leave because that is where he feels best. Also, because that character is a visual artist, that was our hook. When he came he had totally embodied that. He always did this finger twitch, and different things as if a spider were weaving a web. He really did the work. It was incredible. He is a part of a comedy troupe. Comedians have amazing comic timing, but also a deep sadness. He was really able to access that.
Comedy and mental health are certainly tied together too.
LPS: The need to make other people laugh and be funny because you want to hide a little bit, I can relate to that.
For effects you used a mix of practical and CGI. How did you go about balancing those?
CB: A lot of that was by necessity as opposed to by desire. We didn’t really know how some things were going to come together, but we had basic ideas. Our special effects artist helped develop some concepts and ideas, but a lot of things happened on set. The final design for the water stain, the “vaganus,” the idea was literally just a water stain with a little crack. We were talking, and then Nina [Anton] had the idea and wanted to go build it. And then she came back with that massive thing. Then our production designer just started painting the wall around it. At the end, it is crazy. It is so beyond anything we had imagined, but it works so well. It became a character itself. We didn’t actually have a lot of time to film it because that happened on the last day. We were always talking about it, and we tried to film it as much as possible, but there was so much for us to film. We did it all in 10 days. Between the action, special effects, and a couple different locations it was just a lot. So a lot of the effects happened on set. A lot of the visual effects were accidental. As we were editing, I was like, “You know what we should try?” and some of that stuff worked out so well.
LPS: He’s being very modest because he taught himself a lot of the effects. We have a great VFX artist as well, but due to budget constraints a lot of it is DIY. Chris was just messing around in DiVinci and found a way to dilate the frame.
CB: That was just an accident. They were in the kitchen making lunch and I just found an interesting effect. A lot of the compositing I did myself. I even painted the electrocution. All of these things were meant to be there as placeholders until we could talk with our VFX artist, but in the end the one thing we really needed the visual effect for was so massive all of their attention had to go to that. Some of the things I ended up doing, I had to go back to and just try to fix.
LPS: I think it gives it an interesting feel. The trope of disposing of a body is so often in movies that we love. In real life, what do you have in your house? Of course the garbage chute would be too small. Of course your garbage bag would break. Of course your saw would be dull. Some of it was a necessity, but in some way when we shoot this way we can highlight the good looking effect and hide the less good looking ones. It gives it that borrowed feel.
CB: Yeah. It doesn’t feel planned. It inevitably feels like what would happen if you were in that situation. We managed to surround ourselves with a team of people that were really in to this idea, and tried to do whatever it would take to make it come out the best it could. I want to claim that it was all us, but it is impossible. There are so many creative forces on the set, from the acting to production design to the special effects artist, even our gaffer was amazing. He did all of these little things that enhanced the effects.
LPS: But in a DIY way.
CB: All DIY.
So many times when people are hiding a body they have plastic sheets. I don’t have those in my house.
LPS: And this is Canada. We definitely don’t have a Home Depot open at 2am.
CB: I think that’s the thing. In most movies, this is where the film will go. But in our movie, it doesn’t go there. Something else happens and it takes a different direction. Otherwise, it could turn into something everyone has seen before. We didn’t want to do that. We kept trying to switch it up, as soon as we got to a point that might be a horror trope. Every time they are about to have a conversation about what was really going on, something disrupts it.
LPS: When we were writing, I would say, “This is our British farce moment.”
This isn’t quite a doppelgänger horror, but it does play with that. What do you find scary about that?
LPS: I am so glad that you asked that. I have been telling this story for decades. When I was a kid I watched an episode of The Twilight Zone. There is a woman at a bus station who asks for an update, and the person there says she already asked that. Waiting for the bus she realizes that her doppelgänger is there, and she is there to replace her. As a child I found this unbelievably terrifying. That there could be this other version of you, that is somehow faster, stronger, better, and could be malevolent. The thing that frightened me was the end of that episode. The host runs through the frame, and then another runs after him. I couldn’t sleep for the longest time after that. I perceived the before and after to be real, and the middle is just the story. The doppelgänger motif is something we’ve always loved. Les Diaboliques and Vertigo are some of the great films. I’m really glad we got to do something with that.
CB: I was thinking of it as the fact that we are all doppelgängers of ourselves, because we are all different with different people. At least I think I am. I don’t reveal as much of myself to my family as I do my wife and my friends, and when meeting new people. Everyone sees you as a different version of yourself. Even you might see yourself as a different version of yourself. With Richie, his interpretation of how he moves through the world is very different than how he is perceived. But when he starts to understand how he is perceived, he wants to change. But he is always himself. We all think that if we make these changes in our lives it will change who we are, but there is no change. We think we will come out the other side. But there is no other side. This is it. I think that’s scary.
DEAD DICKS is available on Blu-ray/DVD, Google Play, Apple TV and other streaming services from Artsploitation Films. Read our review here.